We interview the man in charge of NASA’S Traffic Management System
Air Traffic Control for Drones
Within the next few years, millions of drones may be regularly flying over U.S. skies, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry partners on developing a system for managing drone air traffic. We recently spoke with NASA’S Parimal Kopardekar, PH.D., manager of the Safe Autonomous System Operations Project and principal investigator of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Traffic Management at NASA’S Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. This NASA team has created a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system, aimed at drones that are 55 pounds and under, that will allow increased efficiency, safety, and capacity in U.S. skies.
Electric Flight: Can you tell us more about the NASA UTM and how it works?
Parimal Kopardekar: Sure. The first side of the piece is the FAA Flight Management System, [where] the FAA can put out any directives or constraints—for example, [where] there is a blocked-off airspace or anything that goes on that needs to be understood and followed by all airspace operators. The second piece is operator-to-operator interaction. Once you and I want to operate in the airspace, we know what airspace to avoid because the FAA says, “Avoid that.” Then we say, “OK, I want to plan my area of operation for search and rescue,” and you’re doing deliveries, so you’re going to have straight-line flight. We [both send our information to] the FAA system, and because we’re operating in the same airspace, the UTM allows us to interact with each other and share information about our other intent. If someone else is out there in a different location and our paths don’t crisscross, then we don’t have to worry about them. So once we do a discovery to see who is nearby, we connect with each other via a peer-to-peer exchange and you track your own vehicle, I track my vehicle, and if there is a situation where your vehicle goes beyond the planned area of operation and my vehicle is creating a problem for you, the UTM will automatically send an alert so [that] you will be careful, like defensive driving. The main idea of UTM is cooperating in an environment where you share and care about and stay away from each other. With the UTM, we have full technical capability levels. Because of the complexity, we are going through a risk-based approach. The first capability level [we tested two years ago] was just focused on very remote areas where there are no other vehicles in the airspace, and we figured out how to interact with each other through electronic or digital means. Last year, we [tested] beyond line of sight capability with tracking options. The third capability that is being tested right now will figure out heterogeneous operations and vehicle interactions. The next tests center on [what happens when] you plan your airspace operations but then you get too close to each other because of uncertainties [like] wind. What do you do about it, and how do you use information about each other’s location and tactically stay away from each other? In 2019, we will be testing urban operations and what happens when there is no GPS, or you don’t have precise locations, or you can’t track yourself very well. Urban airspace has a lot of risks—buildings, trees, other vehicles, manned aviation—so you have to take all of that into account. What’s interesting about that is that we have a very good relationship with the FAA, and they are deploying things as we find maturity in our concepts. [For example,] FAA has taken our authentication authorization [concept] and built a “Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability” that they have already deployed. So the FAA is not waiting for all of the research to be done; as bits and pieces are available and mature, they are taking those things on and implementing them. You have a very exciting job. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun! Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
That’s impressive. When do you anticipate this system might be up and running and drones will be delivering packages? The fixed-wing Precisionhawk Lancaster 5 being launched during the TCL2 demonstration at Renostead Airport, October 2016. (Photo courtesy of NASA Ames/dominic Hart)
The concept of urban air mobility involves multiple aircraft safely operating within a city.